Colts at Jets: What to watch for Sunday

PHILADELPHIA, PA - SEPTEMBER 23: Wide receiver Ryan Grant #11 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates aftering making a touchdown-catch off a 5-yard pass from quarterback Andrew Luck #12 against the Philadelphia Eagles during the first quarter at Lincoln Financial Field on September 23, 2018 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts Sunday game with the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.

Kickoff: 1 p.m.

Broadcast: CBS4

  • Slow the Jets: Sometimes it’s not complicated. Like Sunday. Priority 1 for coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense is slowing down a Jets’ running game that embarrassed Denver last Sunday. They gashed the Broncos 38 times for 323 yards. Isaiah Crowell set a franchise record with 219 yards on just 15 carries. We’ll save you the trouble: that’s 14.6 yards per carry, and included runs of 77, 54, 36 and 15 yards. Bilal Powell added 99 yards on 20 carries.

Rookie linebacker Darius Leonard is expected to be back in the starting lineup after missing the Patriots game with an ankle injury, and knows what’s coming. The NFL’s leading tackler (with 54) is looking forward to it.

“That’s what linebackers are built for,’’ Leonard said of the run-heavy Jets. “So there’s no running around. There’s no hiding. It’s just downhill.’’

A robust running game – or even a methodical one – eases the workload of rookie quarterback Sam Darnold. He’s shown flashes during the Jets’ 2-3 start with 7 TDs, but also has suffered 6 interceptions and been sacked 11 times.

As is the case when facing any rookie quarterback, Priority 1 is taking away his strength – the run game – and force him make plays.

One caveat to the notion the Jets have been gouging defenses all season. In the four games prior to piling up 323 yards against Denver, they had rushed 99 times for 352 yards. Those are averages of 88 yards per game and 3.6 per attempt.

  • More on the ground: Since we’re talking about the run game, Sunday would be a nice time for the Colts to locate theirs. Contributing to their 1-4 start has been a ground attack that’s been one of the league’s least productive. It ranks 29th in yards per game (74.4) and 27th in yards per attempt (3.7). And here’s where we remind you Indy’s longest run is Andrew Luck’s 33-yard scramble at Philadelphia.

“We all know we need to run the ball a little more effectively to give ourselves a consistent chance to win ball games,’’ Luck said.

Rookies Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines have shared the load thus far, but help is on the way. Top back Marlon Mack is expected back and key backup Robert Turbin should be more involved in his second game since serving his four-game suspension. A hamstring injury has limited Mack to one game and 18 offensive plays.

Recently, adverse situations have led to Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni to abandon the run and rely on Luck. The Colts trailed Houston 28-10 in the third quarter and were in a 24-3 halftime hole at New England. That resulted in Luck attempting 121 passes, the second-highest total in consecutive games in league history.

It’s imperative to avoid the slow starts and remain at least semi-committed to the ground game.

  • Line dance, again: We’ve got a nice transition thing going. Another reason the Colts need to get more out of their running game is to keep the Jets from teeing off on Luck. Coach Todd Bowles loves to blitz and has capable pass-rush threats in Leonard Williams (3 sacks, 7 QB hits), Jordan Jenkins (2 and 9) and Avery Williamson (2 and 2). Also, former Colt Henry Anderson has contributed 2.5 sacks and 5 hits.

Luck’s protection has been more than adequate. He’s been sacked 10 times while throwing a league-high 245 passes. And that’s with the ever-changing makeup of his offensive line.

And more change is coming. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo is expected to make his first appearance of the season and it’s possible Mark Glowinski steps in at right guard for Matt Slauson, who was placed on IR this week with a back injury.

However it shakes out, the Colts will be going with a fifth different starting combo in six games.

  • Trade? Win, win: It’s rare when a trade proves beneficial for each team. We give you the Colts and Jets, who sent shockwaves across the NFL landscape March 17. General manager Chris Ballard held the 3rd overall pick in the April draft, but wasn’t in the market for a quarterback and sought to maximize the pick’s value. The Jets were in need of a QB, and GM Mike Maccagnan was receptive to a blockbuster deal.

For the 3rd overall pick, Ballard moved back to the No. 6 rung in the first round and also received three second-round picks from the Jets – two in the April draft (Nos. 37 and 49) and one in ’19. The Jets got their QB of the future, USC’s Sam Darnold. Ballard’s haul was further enhanced when he traded back at 49 with Philadelphia and received picks 52 and 169 (fifth-round).

The Colts’ total takeaway: guard Quenton Nelson (6th overall), guard Braden Smith (37), defensive end Kemoko Turay (52) and Wilkins (169).

Three of Ballard’s additions probably will be in the starting lineup against the Jets: Nelson, Turay and Smith. Wilkins is the team’s leading rusher with 175 yards and continues to be a part of the backs-by-committee approach.

“You feel good about it,’’ Reich said of the trade. “It’s good for the league when it works out good on both ends. It provides us an opportunity just to get difference-makers in the building and really develop those guys to be great players. I couldn’t be more excited about how that is working out.’’

It’s also worth noting the Colts and Jets were back at it on draft day. Indy sent Anderson to New York for a sixth-round pick, which turned into linebacker Zaire Franklin.

  • And the winner is: Colts 27, Jets 23. This one was arrived at without much conviction. The injuries continue to be a major issue, but the Colts have one thing the Jets don’t: a proven quarterback. When two wavering teams meet, we’ll go with the one led by Andrew Luck, not Sam Darnold.

And we’ll keep our fingers crossed. Indy is dealing with a three-game losing streak and absolutely must take advantage of this three-game stretch. After facing the 2-3 Jets, they’re home against 2-3 Buffalo and travel to 1-4 Oakland before heading into their bye weekend.

Get on a roll and remain relevant, or see the season quickly unravel.

 You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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